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I was the first in my family to ever apply to Harvard, where I went to college, fell in love with Cambridge, was involved in student activism, most notably around divestiture of Harvard's endowment from South Africa, and first volunteered in the schools. After a couple years of work in New York City for a politician (Brooklyn District Attorney Liz Holtzman), I went to graduate school, at the Yale School of Management, where I received an excellent education in management and strategic thinking. After several years in corporate consulting at a large international firm of McKinsey, which allowed me to pay off my school loans, I went into the non-profit and socially responsible business sector. I have run two small companies (an environmental firm and a telephone reseller).
I live between Harvard Square and Fresh Pond, with my husband, David Rabkin and our two children, Joshua (who started at Peabody then spent 4 years at Amigos and is now at the Kennedy-Longfellow) and Alexis, (an Amigos 4th grader).
For the last 2 years, my main job has been School Committee member. We get paid $30,000 a year -- more than anyone else in the state. (I pledged to spend at least half time on the job if elected. My husband can confirm it's even more than that). For several years before that, I have been working part-time on a range of projects. I've helped a legal staffing firm start, several enterprises that are worker-owned, including a model welfare-to-work home health aide company, worked on economic development in Boston, an environmental mutual fund and many other projects. One of the most exciting was leading a group that sought to open an International Baccalaureate Charter High School here in Cambridge. That effort did not make the final cut by the state, but it got me very involved in thinking about to better use our tremendous resources as a district.
Community (broadly defined) climate: We should work on inspiring a climate of trust and invitation to all members of our community. We need to have every parent feel valued, every teacher feel respected, every community institution welcomed.
Too much teaching to the test and standardizing all our schools: Our market research results showed very clearly that a very large percent of people like me in the district and those who left think we are doing too much teaching to the test. I agree. The way to excellence, as every effective teacher knows and every grateful parent of those teachers will tell you: engage kids in learning. If engaged, they will learn, and pass the test as a byproduct. Plus, there are fewer behavior problems when kids are engaged. Part of this drive to focus only on tests is a standardization across the district. I think we need to pay close attention to the policies of the district and make sure we are clear about the policy of having different school models.
School Department Administration:
The main issue for me on in school administrators is that they get the support they need and feel comfortable making decisions.
The main issue on central administration is to figure out how to help the district improve the efficiency of those roles, especially since we may be facing deficits in the coming years. That would be a huge change from the past several years when we have had multi-million dollars surpluses in the school department each year. In light of the state DOE finance analysis of our district, if we need to save money, and maybe even if we don't, but we want to reallocate dollars into classrooms, then this area is one of the top to explore.
One area that hasn't been addressed systematically is how we're doing on being a technologically up-to-date school district in terms of management. I authored a motion asking for a technology strategic spending plan, covering both the educational side of what we do and the business side. We're still waiting for the plan, but I am hopeful it will give us a sense of what can be improved. In a number of areas, teachers have told me we're behind a lot of districts. For example, a teacher can't process a purchase order for something for the classroom electronically. That seems very inefficient to me, and in any case worth examining.
Superintendent Thomas Fowler-Finn's Contract - Based on what you
know today, would you support an extension of this contract and, if so,
for what term and under what conditions?:
However, he has also had several years in a row of less than stellar, barely above average, evaluations. The School Committee (before I was part of it and since) collectively identified a number of areas for improvement. There has been some improvement, but overall the evaluation this past year was no better than the prior year, slightly above average -- all 7members, collectively.
If I am re-elected, when we assess the superintendent and decide whether to extend a new contract, the following criteria will guide my decision:
If I feel that we have a leader who meets those criteria, and is the type of leader we deserve -- capable of respecting input, allowing other educational leaders in the district to lead, rallying the community and inspiring confidence in staff, then I will vote for an extension. If not, I won't.
This decision is whether we believe we have the set of skills we need, given our specific situation at this point in time. No matter who is our superintendent, the job is a dream job. No other district of only 6000 students pays $200,000 a year and has $23,000 per student and a community full of unbelievable resources. One thing I am sure of: IF a search is initiated, the community, the district and our schools would continue operating just fine. The last time a search was done, the district was in very different circumstances. CRLS was on probation, boycotters of MCAS had only recently abated and a major consolidation of elementary schools moved or merged 9 of 15 elementary schools. IN other words, the district was going through very chaotic times. Yet in the middle of that time, a search for a superintendent was started and was barely noticed by most. I know. I was a pretty active parent at the time. The search created work for the School Committee, but did not create any problems or instability. Now, IF a search is started, none of those other issues are present, which means there is no reason that a search would be unsettling. We have stellar staff in the 1200 employees of the district, I am confident that either way our district will be fine.
Controlled Choice, Student Assignment Policies, and the
Earlier this year, we made a change to the controlled choice policy. This change is emblematic of how I work, and why I should be re-elected. I am pleased to say that I led the effort to overturn a vote on the controlled choice policy that shortchanged low income families. I refused to go along with a plan that helped the middle class at the expense of low income families. Taking political heat, I stood up for finding a better way. We did. We came up with and passed, a plan that increased options for BOTH the middle class and low income families.
An interesting note on the reversal of the earlier vote: The originally voted policy, which 5 members voted to refer to a second reading was recommended by the administration. AT the time, I expressed reservations over whether the policy reserved enough seats for low income families. Turns out I was right: had the policy not been overturned and had we kept the administration recommended one, the School Committee would have looked like idiots, since we would have had to come back, in jut 2 months, and change the policy AGAIN, just to allow low income families coming in to register. (NOTE: there's some misinformation out there about this vote. Two of us were absent, true, but with all policy changes are voted on first to refer to a second reading and only then can they be passed, so the absent members knew the real vote was at the next meeting, when all members were present.)
Student Assignment Policies:
Let me use the introduction of the new Montessori school as a way to explain how we could address the issue of getting to a district that still allows choice, but without a waitlist problem. I support Montessori wholeheartedly. In fact, I offered a motion to look at some new models for Cambridge schools, including cloning our most popular school (the Graham & Parks), the International Baccalaureate, and Montessori specifically.
Many times over the years, Cambridge thought about Montessori, which I endorsed as a possible new program. Back in 2001 the district did a survey of parents about new models, including Montessori. But the process by which we got to the proposal for a Montessori was fundamentally disrespectful, non-inclusive and flawed. (Note: I voted against the PROCESS, not Montessori, many people are misrepresenting my views on this, for example failing to mention my motion to explore models, including Montessori.)
What happened: the Superintendent proposed Montessori, having looked at no other model. And proposed it in a timeframe that left NO time to look at anything else, since it was presented as the only way to save the Tobin School from state takeover due to low MCAS scores. (Never a good thing in my view to create a crisis to pass a policy)
At the time, a majority of the School Committee expressed concern over the approach, specifically expressed frustration that we were not part of the discussion at all. The frustration rose out of a knowledge that a very explicit and specific state policy states that this kind of decision is the School Committee's, not the superintendent..
This time around, I hope that we do what we should have done, what any good management group does when considering a new program. The district decides to explore new models. A group is convened and makes a list of the 10 or 15 most promising models. Those are reviewed, the 3 or 4 or 5 most promising identified as most likely to be a good fit for our district, and explored in depth. Once that is done, a recommendation is made based on all input, from the community, the administration, outside experts, school staff and parents.
I note that while our achievement gap is unacceptably high for proficiency, our district has an enviable record of high school graduation for all, and an especially great record for a group very difficult to reach, African American males.
The answer is deceptively simple: higher expectations, balanced schools, and acknowledge the gap publicly, since that is always the first step to addressing an issue.
On enrichment: Cambridge has an array of enrichment programs, but they have not been well coordinated or communicated. There are many programs that help children go beyond the classroom work. Some programs, like Science Club for Girls, happen in our schools. Some, like The Math Circle, happen outside our schools. We should have a more comprehensive approach, an explicit program to stretch all students.
On the challenging curriculum: First, we need to make sure we are not dictating curriculum across the board. Secondly, we need to do more to ensure that academically strong students are engaged.
I believe we do a good job of providing challenge to academically advanced students at the High School level. I don't believe we do a good enough job at the elementary level. I authored a motion which is on our agenda for future discussion:
I authored the motion partly since I realized I have heard -- all of us on School Committee have heard -- about programs for struggling students, but have not ever had a report on programs for the other end of the ability spectrum.
At the high school, we have a full array of courses, not only AP, but in science internships at Biogen and other companies which provide those students involved college level and beyond exposure and experience. If you blow through the math offerings, you can go to Harvard Extension. If you are ready for more than AP English or History, you have a range of options to ensure challenge.
Not so at the elementary level. It is an issue I have worked on, and plan to do more on if re-elected. A concern of mine stems from some research suggesting that if a district is not careful, the pressure of No Child Left Behind can be used to basically ignore those already proficient.
Enrollment and the Marketing of Public Schools vs. Charter Schools
and Private Schools:
We learned a lot, including that while people are happy with a lot of aspects of the district, nearly HALF indicated they might leave us. We need to understand that sentiment more deeply, and address it. Major concerns raised were: teaching to the test, bullying and classroom behavior, and uneven educational quality. For new parents, the concern around getting one of your top choice schools is also critical (see topic below).
I feel the same way about charter schools, which are public schools, as I always have. I support charter schools for four main reasons: First, I don't want only people who can afford private school to have a choice if our system has failed them.
Secondly, charter schools do not get started in districts where the schools serve kids well. Only districts like Cambridge, where parents and the community feel their children have not gotten the education they could, even have charter applications. I support the idea that districts that have failed families need to face that fact, and families be given a chance to form an alternative. Districts like Brookline don't have charter schools, since the schools work for them. Charters only start out of frustration of parents with regular public schools and take hundreds of hours from many people I a community to get started, if they pass rigorous state requirements.
Third, they are based on exactly the same impulse that started three of CPS most chosen schools. Cambridgeport, King Open, and Graham & Parks all started from parent desire to create an alternative to existing public schools to better meet their educational desires. That is the same promise of charter schools.
Fourth, if they fail, they're closed. If they work, their lessons can be disseminated. Denise Simmons and I co-sponsored a series of forums to learn from model public schools. The forums included some charter public as well as regular public schools. I got soundly criticized, but my response is clear: if a charter school has something to teach us about high performance then let's learn (and several charter schools which are predominantly kids of color and poor are among the top performers in the state and beat the pants off of white suburban schools). Just as others learn from Cambridge on what we do well, which is many, many things.
Elementary Schools and Curriculum:
The curriculum should not be dictated from above, but decide upon by an individual school community, as long as the outcomes are mutually agreed upon. At Amigos, for example where my daughter goes (and my son went for 4 years) the nature of a bilingual immersion program does not always fit with curriculum that might work at another school. Amigos should do what's best for its program. Similarly, an alternative project-based approach is appealing to many - the Graham & Parks, Cambridgeport and King Open all have aspects of it. Are we losing the specialness of these schools? Let's make sure the answer is no.
High School Programs and Curriculum:
The range of course offerings, the great quality in so many areas and the upcoming renovation all bode well for continued success of CRLS. The challenges for the future include instilling small school feel and attention when the small learning communities are not allowed to differentiate and are not separate schools. The high school renovation project needs to be carefully managed. The new emphasis on science and engineering will take some careful thought as well.
School Department Budget and Capital Needs (including CRLS
renovations), and the Disposition of Surplus Buildings:
Some of our excess spending goes to things other districts only dream about: no fees for activities or buses, all day Kindergarten, an array of afterschool programs, early childhood programs. But add that all up, and it appears to total max of $2000 extra per student. That leaves $7,000. Max of another $2,000 is due to small class size. That leaves $5,000 extra per student. THAT is the number on which we need to focus. That includes central administration that is triple other districts our size (central admin in the DOE analysis, or in my book, does not include school based staff like principals). The excess includes much more spending on instructional materials. Great if it's leading to higher achievement. Not great if it's because we have money to burn. The excess includes retirement and benefits. To be honest, I don't know if we can do anything about that. But we should find out.
For the last 3 years, our district has run multi-million dollar surpluses. Each time, I suggest that at least some of this million surplus be directed into the classroom. Foremost on my minds is the fact that we keep cutting classroom staff, teachers, aides, etc. as we run these surpluses. Throwing money at the problem won't fix it. Agreed. But throwing money into having more effective adults in our classrooms will fix it. The fact is that our classes might do much better with a teacher and full time WELL TRAINED AND EFFECTIVE aide in every class. (aside from any SPED aides)
We have put million of the surplus into a debt stabilization fund, which I support in part. I don't support spending money on things without a plan. And I don't support stashing away all of the surplus when teachers throughout the district are told there's not money to pay for some small ticket items. And principals and school councils are told there's not money to fund programs they asked for to meet the goals of their School Improvement Plans, which has happened for each of the last 3 years.
Buildings are important. I know, my children attend a school in need of serious repair. But people aren't leaving our district due to our buildings, and achievement levels and chosen schools have no relation to building status. More importantly, the budget we are given is a budget for operating schools, not building buildings. The capital budget is supposed to be the place you plan for capital projects, not your operating budget.
If anyone says we have shifted dollars from central administration into our classrooms, ask where. When you add up the district's own budget codes from a few years ago totaling central administration, there hasn't been a shift. The administration is now using different budget categories, but the old budget categories are still valid. Half of the administrative and operations cuts usually mentioned came from IN our schools, e.g. principals or custodians from closed elementary schools. While some central administration dollars were cut, the combination of new positions added and salary raises has meant that we are now spending MORE dollars on central administration this year than pre-consolidation.
Our children should have more resources spent IN their classrooms. I know how to oversee consultant reports; I was one for many years. I know what questions to ask in the job of oversight and governance since that is my training. That is why I need to keep serving on School Committee.
On the disposition of school buildings: The school department will need the former Longfellow School (now the library space and High School Extension Program) for at least 5 years. The next two for the library, then three for the high school "swing space" (unless another space is identified and rented or given to us for use, highly unlikely scenario). After that, we will need space for school department administration, hopefully space for renovating elementary schools in dire shape, and hopefully space for an expanding enrollment.
The Upton Street building is another matter. The building itself needs major work if it is to be used for a school on a permanent basis (new fire codes, accessibility issues, no open space, few bathrooms). Thus, it is not clear if it could serve the school department. I am hopeful that once we resolve the question of whether the building is needed for the high school renovation swing space, we can give it back to the city. I would lobby for using it as the community wants. The neighborhood having extra weight, but the whole city weighing in. Whether that is the Community Learning Center, the most often discussed option, or something else, I want it to be used for a public facility to enhance the city.
MCAS and Measuring Student Achievement:
I resent MCAS since it is tempting to think the test is the goal, as opposed to a means of determining whether the goal of learning has been reached. I resent MCAS since too often it is used as a stick, not a source of information to inform teachers of effectiveness.
MCAS is here to stay, for better or worse. What we as a district have to fight is the urge to do even more testing, to focus ONLY on MCAS. The best teachers and the best schools will confirm that you can do well on the test without teaching to the test. Too many teachers in our district have been telling me they don't hear many queries about their teaching and learning beyond its impact on MCAS. That is disturbing, but happens when you standardize too much and you don't let educational leaders in each school determine for themselves how to achieve desired outcomes. I am a big believer in setting the goals, the expected outcomes, and leaving it to the creativity and energy and passion of our school based staff to meet the goals and achieve the outcomes.
School Safety and Student Behavior:
The issue of student behavior is complex. On the one hand, if you engage kids in learning, then behavior problems are dramatically reduced. On the other hand, there are kids who need different classroom environments and instructional strategies to be engaged than other kids. And one classroom one teacher might not be able to be all things to all kids. First, we do need to remember the first, and focus on helping teachers provide engagement. One worrying trend in our district is too much focus on testing, too much using the stick instead of the carrot to inspire teachers.
School safety is another issue. In general, Cambridge is a very safe environment. Whether compared to suburbs or urban, we have an excellent safety record. But we still have far too many instances of kids feeling insecure. This issue is not just the high school, but our elementary schools. I am concerned less about the external intruder than I am about how to inculcate throughout our district a culture of respect, which eliminates most safety and many behavior problems.
Parent Involvement and School Councils:
Email after email from Cambridge parents make me worried about whether our district truly encourages strong parental involvement. Individual schools can, and many but not all do. But in my view, our district is as welcoming, respectful or inviting of parent input as we should be.
Case in point: The discussion on how to amend our controlled choice policy is one that touches every parent. First, how they enter the system, secondly, how transfers are possible, third, how schools are affected by the balancing that happens (or doesn't) in every classroom.
This year, we changed the policy temporarily with, no chance for public input. Recognizing the need for greater participation, the School Committee unanimously passed a motion to have a special meeting on the issue, specifically asking that a widespread communication effort solicit input from the entire community.
Unfortunately, we did not do a good job of outreach. Many people who care deeply about this issue did not know about the meeting.
Similarly, we have not done all we should and can to communicate with people about the high school renovation plan. All of us must stand up and demand greater outreach, greater input and greater respect for participation. Participation does not mean confusing who actually makes the decisions. But without participation, without input, without the benefit of hearing from a range of voices, perspectives and experience, decisions are not as good. I'm plenty smart, but I don't know everything. Whenever I'm in a position to make a decision, I know that I will make a better decision by listening to and learning from others. That's the culture we need to develop and nurture in this fabulous district.
Our schools can and should be at the forefront of environmental education, building, and programs. Our city has made a commitment to being a city supportive of environmental sustainability. But we have not done enough to have a culture of environmental responsibility. From use of recycled paper to saving paper to cafeteria programs to sourcing sustainable products to using eco-friendly building materials in every project, CPS has a long way to go. Kids are natural enthusiasts; our schools can and should build on that energy to provide models for other districts. We do not yet live the ideal of incorporating sustainability into our practices as a district. We can and we should.
Explore extended learning time, including a longer school year:
Ask any teacher what kids lose over the summer. Answer: A lot. I see it in my kids, and their Spanish. They are the part of the Amigos family that is not Latino at all. Without Spanish over the summer, they lose a lot. It is as true for other subjects, from math to writing to science. Ten weeks with no academics is too long.
A recent national educational study demonstrated the positive benefits of academically oriented summer programs, especially for middle school students. We should be at the forefront of addressing this challenge.
Teacher Evaluations and Teachers Contract:
I would hope that the teachers contract continue to evolve as the district's needs change, to ensure that we can deliver on our promise of excellent instruction in every classroom.
Planning for the future:
Strategic planning around technology: I authored a motion to develop a strategic plan for technology, both the educational side and business operations side. This is an area on which we have spent millions, and directed millions more in surplus funds, without a strategic plan. To ensure excellence in this century, we need to have a plan, and implement it well.
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